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Mo' Essra Mohawk

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1982 City Paper

(Edited/trimmed to fit Web format)


Current Web site

By Jack Veasey

Essra Mohawk is back in Philadelphia. Fans who've followed the high-energy singer-songwriter's checkered career will, of course, be glad to hear this news. Since she initially left Philadelphia to become the first female member of Frank Zappa's "Mothers of Invention" as a teenager in the late sixties, Mohawk has fluctuated between the East and West coasts with the cheerful unpredictability that has become her trademark, but one thing has remained consistent. At each visit's local appearances in the old days at clubs like the Main Point and the Bijou, now at spots like John & Peters Place and J.C. Dobb's the girl from Northeast Philly would have written a whole evening's worth of brand new songs, which she'd sing with undiminished youthful fervor and inimitable style, full of surprises.

Now, however, she's brought her local following a major new surprise.

This time she's staying.

She and her third husband, drummer/producer Daoud Shaw, have moved here from Los Angeles "to be with home and family" (his parents live in Boston). Interviewed at her parents' comfortable home in the Northeast, she discussed her search for a permanent house here.

"Ideally," she said, "I'd like to maintain homes on both coasts: there are things about the West Coast I really love for instance. the natural mobility people seem to feel there. ... but at the moment we're focusing on finding that permanent home here: We're looking for a house with some space around it where we can play our music till four in the morning: and once we have one I'd like to have a child so he can grow up in a house where he can play till four in the morning too! He will have to go to school, but he can be Peter Pan in the summer ... and I want him to play bass so he can teach Daoud!"

She laughed the familiar, easy laugh that so often punctuates between-song wisecracks or anecdotes at her gigs. It was a boiling hot day, one which saw traffic choking nearby Roosevelt Boulevard, but a sound-effects tape Shaw had just slipped into the stereo suddenly filled the room and this interviewer's tape with the soft, soothing sound of a tropical thunder shower. Joking that he'd better "go put the cows in the barn," Shaw, who happens to be a dead ringer for Omar Sharif, left the room for a cigarette.

Humor is only one of many things Mohawk and Shaw have in common. Both have worked long, hard years paying their dues in the music business, with much of that time spent behind the scenes. (They met while they were both engaged in session work at A&M records-she singing on publishing demos and dabbling in staff writing, he playing drums on an album being recorded by their mutual friend, rhythm-and-blues singer David Lazley.)

Both have a list of past collaborations that read like a Who's Who of the record industry. Shaw has played drums, both on record and on the road, for everyone from Bob Dylan to Bette Midler to Chuck Berry to Phoebe Snow, as well as produced records for such major artists as Van Morrison.

He's an appropriate match for Mohawk: shortly after their marriage just over two years ago, their small LA apartment became the scene of jam sessions with Tom Waits and Rikki Lee Jones, and of a songwriting collaboration between Mohawk and jazz great Al Jarreau. Then Mohawk and Shaw went together on a tour with Jerry Garcia she as a background singer, he as the drummer.

Lately their exertion of time and talent has been kept, so to speak, "in the family." Shaw produced Mohawk's forthcoming live album, Burnin'/Shinin', and assembled the band with which she will be touring. The record has a distinctly rhythm-and-blues feel which in one sense is a departure for both of them, but in another signifies a real return to roots. Shaw has drummed with such R&B giants as Martha Reeves. Ben E. King, Esther Phillips and Etta James, and Mohawk has often been described by critics as having "a black sound," so much so that she once jokingly told a reporter, "the white radio stations won't play my records because they think I'm black, the black stations won't play them because they know I'm white but WMMR plays my records because they know I'm Jewish."

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